It was a Wednesday during the legislative session and the suggested donation was $200 per person, a seemingly modest amount when compared to fundraisers hosted by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell that command contributions upward of $1,000 a head.
Campaign finance records show Hawaii’s top lobbyists John Radcliffe and George “Red” Morris both gave money to Hee on that day. So did the Hawaii State Teachers Association and Abigail Kawananakoa, a millionaire heiress to the Campbell Estate.
In all, Hee reported raising $55,000 that day. It was the largest single-day haul by any Hawaii legislator this campaign cycle, which began just after the Nov. 6, 2012 election.
Hee has also raised more money than any of his colleagues in that same period, pulling down nearly $173,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports that cover through Dec. 31.
Even more impressive — and arguably more important — is that Hee has more than $460,000 in cash on hand, meaning he has the money to help stave off challengers or run for higher office.
Hee told Civil Beat the money gives him the “flexibility” to consider a run for governor or lieutenant governor, but that he hasn’t made a decision yet.
“People have talked to me about seeking higher state office and I’ve told them in the past that I don’t think now’s the right time,” Hee said. “There’s always the possibility … but I haven’t given it serious consideration.”
Hee’s taken a shot at higher office before. In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Four years later he lost a bid for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, a seat now filled by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Hee, whose District 23 seat is up for election this year, said this week that he’s not interested in running for federal office at this time.
Hee is the head of the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee, which hears some of the state’s most controversial bills.
This makes Hee both gatekeeper and shepherd for some of the most significant legislation to be debated in the isles, including last fall’s marriage equality bill and civil unions before that.
As a result, Hee is often mired in controversy. Last year he squared off with the media as he single-handedly disemboweled Hawaii’s shield law that protected journalists from having to reveal their sources.
He added to the backlash during a hearing on the Senate floor when he mocked fellow lawmakers who believed that the foundation of democracy was at stake.
While Hee’s actions regarding the shield law didn’t win him any fans within the media or good government groups, the senator has often been lauded for his stance on other issues, particularly those related to Native Hawaiians.
But the fact that Hee can be so polarizing seems to have given him a wide range of campaign support.
He pulls in money from many of the usual suspects in business and labor, including from corporate giants Monsanto and Altria, the parent company to Philip Morris. Bank of Hawaii, Young Brothers and Outrigger Enterprises, to name a few local business heavyweights, also give to Hee’s re-election fund.
He has also received campaign contributions from former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, Queens Medical Center President and CEO Arthur Ushijima and former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Steven Levinson.
But Hee’s decision-making and influence have also made him the beneficiary of some less renowned benefactors.
On April 24, nearly half the money Hee raised came from companies associated with sweepstakes gaming, which some law enforcement officials contend is a form of illegal gambling, although the issue is still up for debate.
Tracy Yoshimura owns one of the gaming machine companies, PJY Enterprises, that gave Hee $4,000 — the maximum contribution for a Senate candidate — during the fundraiser. Yoshimura also gave Hee another $1,000 as an individual donor.
“I like how the guy fights,” Yoshimura said of his support for Hee. “Sometimes he’ll go against what’s popular to stand up for what he believes.”
Yoshimura, who has had some of his sweepstakes machines seized by the police, helped organize opposition to House Bill 343 in last year’s session. That bill sought to make clear that sweepstakes machines were gambling devices.
Among those he pulled together to oppose the bill were individuals who worked for arcades, such as Winner’z Zone and Lucky Touch.
Hee’s committee took up HB 343, but ultimately deferred it on April 4, essentially killing the measure.
At Hee’s fundraiser three weeks later, many of the businesses that would have suffered had the bill passed gave money to Hee’s campaign, more than $20,000.
Hee did not have much to say about the contributions he received from the gaming groups, only that his campaign tries to comply with all of Hawaii’s campaign spending laws.
“The United States Supreme Court ruled on free speech, and whether people agree or disagree with the Citizens United case, it is a ruling in the highest court in the nation,” Hee said. “I happen to disagree with the court, however, my disagreement doesn’t change their decision.”
Even though Hee is one of the state’s most prolific fundraisers, he may face a spirited challenge this year stemming from his leadership on the marriage equality issue during last fall’s special session. He introduced the Senate bill that ultimately made gay marriage legal in Hawaii.
While this galvanized the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in his favor, it also alienated many of his constituents. Hee’s Senate district includes Laie, home of the Mormon Church and one of Oahu’s few conservative-leaning pockets.
Hee admits that his backing of Senate Bill 1 as well as his role in the civil unions debate years before could make him vulnerable in the coming 2014 election.
“The gay marriage issue was about equal justice under the law, not so much about gays and lesbians,” Hee said. “(But) there were many people who said many unkind things to me who live in my district. They were explicit in how they felt about me personally, and it was over the the gay marriage issue.”
Hawaii Rep. Richard Fale has said, according to recent news reports, he plans to challenge Hee for his Senate seat. Fale, a Republican, was one of the gay marriage bill’s loudest critics, saying at the time he preferred the issued to go to a vote of the people.
Fale did not return a request for comment for this story.
The representative, who records show badly trails Hee in fundraising, could get help from a newly formed Hawaii super PAC.
DMH Super PAC registered with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission as an independent expenditure committee. DMH stands for Defend Marriage Hawaii.
Garret Hashimoto, president of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, is the treasurer of the new PAC. He said the group will likely back Fale, although he doesn’t know if that will be monetarily or on the ground.
Hashimoto added that the PAC will also throw its support behind any conservative candidates, particularly those who voted against gay marriage or would have had they been in office.
“Quite frankly the way the Senate and Clayton Hee handled SB 1 left a lot of people very upset in the state of Hawaii because they felt their voices were not heard,” Hashimoto said. “They feel that the only resource that they have available is through their vote now, and I believe many to them will be expressing that right to vote.”
DMH Super PAC registered with the Campaign Spending Commission on Jan. 27, which was after the Dec. 31, 2013 deadline to file contribution and expenditure reports, so financial information including contributions has not been made public.
When asked about Hee’s substantial financial lead, Hashimoto’s response is the equivalent of a shrug.
“It’s not necessarily about money,” Hashimoto said. “Money helps get your name out there, but ultimately it is the one vote that is afforded each person in the state, and I personally know that a lot of people are disenchanted with the way that Mr. Hee handled the (SB 1) hearing.”
Civil Beat is tracking the money flowing to candidates and campaigns for local, state and federal elections in a variety of ways. “Cashing In” is an occasional series that analyzes campaign finance reports filed with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission. We’re looking at who’s giving, who’s getting and how the money is being spent.